"OK, go!" This is my cue to run down a sandy incline, launch a skimboard, land on it sideways with both feet, and glide beyond a shoreline as slick as ice. Teenage boys relish this sport. I am not a teenage boy.
But that doesn't matter to Paulo Prietto, literally the world's best skimboarder, who's been coaching me for the past hour.
"You missed it," says Mr. Prietto. "Let's try this next wave coming in." Prietto locks his focus on a mounting swell to determine when I, with toes raw from wiping out, should take off.
As the waves hurl up and then collapse on the beach, they spread a film of water that's perfect for "skimming." The question on my panting breath is: Is this the perfect surf sport for me to be trying?
Before this spring weekend I'd never touched a skimboard, or any kind of surfboard. Stretching out on the sand has its rewards, but I wanted to move beyond being a "hill person" – someone who watches the surf from afar. I wanted to ride atop the froth and foam.
Just grabbing a board and jumping in doesn't work. I'd heard countless stories from would-be surfers: How hard it is to stand up, how tired you get paddling, how pummeled you feel if a wave crashes on your head.
"Surfing is dangerous just like anything else," she told me. "At Surf Diva we teach ... in waist-deep water, so it's like learning how to drive in the parking lot."
Sounded good to me.
• • •
But I wanted to sample all my options – skimboarding and bodyboarding, too – which is how I ended up under the tutelage of young Prietto, a professional skimboarder who runs the Solag Skim School in Laguna Beach.
Laguna Beach is considered a skimboard mecca because the slope of the beach here can help skimmers "drop in" and build enough momentum to reach the wave before it breaks.
Skimboards are like large skateboards minus wheels. The light, hard-foam boards with traction pads enable the best to take off at a sprint, skim over wet sand out to breaking waves, soar off them like ramps, and land with the grace of a settling leaf. While surfers wait a long time for the perfect wave, skimmers can ride 40 in an hour.
"Skimming is a nice intro to the ocean," says Tex Haines, cofounder of Victoria Skimboards in Laguna Beach and one of the sport's modern pioneers. "You don't have to get in the water or get a wet suit. A lot of people will pick it up on vacation because the boards are cheaper than surfboards and you can store them in your closet afterward."
On my first try, the board whooshed out from under me and I landed splayed like a rag doll (watch the video to see for yourself).
Learning a new physical skill takes patience. And humility. Especially if you're wiping out across what feels like sandpaper.
Once a wave swells, "it's all about being willing to commit," said Prietto, who sensed my reluctance to hit the sand again. Eventually I land with some balance atop the board, and gently slide before falling over in knee-deep water. Prietto claps politely from his perch on the shore, five yards away. At the end of my lesson he studied the sand rash on my right shin. "You're a true skimmer now," he said with a straight face. I bloomed with pride.
• • •
There's a pecking order in the surf. Waves are limited and unpredictable. Territorial instincts run high. Skimmers, who stick close to shore, are mostly ignored by surfers. But the short, soft bodyboards can inspire contempt by "real" surfers, who call bodyboarders "shark biscuits." To minimize ego and board collisions, beaches are often divided into swimming, boarding, and surfing sections.
But on the calm day I tried Newport Beach – just north of Laguna and famous for its varied waves – the surf was in a gentle mood and everyone was getting along.
Even though I was still aching from my skimming lesson that morning, I rented a bodyboard (sometimes called boogeyboards) at Newport Pier.
How painful could this be? Besides, one of my instructors was only 9 years old.
Natasha Fisher has real surfing hair – blonde waves – a doll-sized wet suit, and a shiny red board. She, and her dad, Evan Fisher, an architect, bodyboard all year round at Newport Beach.
Natasha patiently explained the principles of bodyboarding as she perched like a sandpiper on an empty lifeguard stand.
"It's all about timing," she said, her tiny hands sculpting the shape of a wave in the air.
Bodyboarding is a good foundation for would-be surfers, because you can study how a wave breaks without having to worry about standing up. I was relieved to learn that you rest on a bodyboard like a giant kickboard. A long leash strapped to my wrist would keep the sea from running off with it.
Once out in shoulder-deep water, I waited to feel the tug of the wave as it lifted itself up to break. That was the moment to push off the bottom and drive toward shore. Natasha flew like a water bug. Evan carved against the lip of a wave.
As I tried to outrun a tower of water, I suddenly felt a force of a million bubbles lifting me up until I hung over the edge of the wave like a grinning ship figurehead: This was it! I was flying! And then ... it was over. The wave dissolved and I was beached in two feet of water. I'd caught my first ride.
Wading out and negotiating the waves again and again is tiring, even lying on a soft board, and after a couple of hours we retired to the boardwalk for some shaved ice. That night, I slept soundly.
• • •
Besides other surfers, the other thing to watch out for in the water is animal life. The next morning, it was time to really learn how to surf. But the morning news was buzzing with reports of a shark attack down the coast. Beaches for an eight-mile stretch were closed.
A receptionist at Surf Diva where I was to have my two-hour lesson assured me that La Jolla was still open. "See you soon!" she chirped.
Right. Here I come.
The beach was teeming. Hula dancers, sea kayakers, and snorklers filled the boardwalk. Temperatures were an unseasonably warm 90 degrees F., while the water was an unseasonably cold 58.
Elisabeth Gause, our instructor, greeted my class enthusiastically. She looked strong enough to bound down to the water with a board under each arm, no problem. She assured us that despite what we'd heard about surfing, we'd have fun.
"Your first rides are like first kisses," she said. "It doesn't matter how long they last, or how good they are, it's just exciting that they're happening."
The first hour was not exciting: We learned wave etiquette and practiced lying on our 10-foot foam boards, doing pushups and leaps to our feet.
The actual "surfing" part consisted of repetition, repetition, repetition. With our boards tethered to our ankles, the class would push against the current out to Ms. Gause who stood in one spot amid the breaking surf. She'd hold us steady as we hoisted up onto our bellies, and then she propelled us toward land while bellowing: "Paddle! ... Up!" The only thing missing was a set of orange flashing lights to proclaim "Watch out! Beginner here!" But it didn't matter. We were surfing.
While Gause focused on the waves, we focused on getting up. The Surf Diva theory works: I got to my feet on my first attempt. I also fell over in two seconds. It was a quick "kiss."
After an hour in the water, I straggled back to the beach and collapsed. Maybe being a hill person wasn't so bad after all.
But I'm hooked. I'm already scheming my next surf adventure.
I don't know if I'll grab a skimboard, bodyboard, or surfboard but I do know this: Don't be afraid to commit; It's all about timing; Every wave is different; And ... oh, yeah. There's always another swell coming. Surf's up, baby.